History and Its Discontents

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I’m standing in the lobby of the Menger Hotel. Before history becomes too falsified to recognize, I want to soak up the fact that Theodore Roosevelt organized his Rough Riders in this very hotel, and that O Henry stayed here. There were other notables too: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee among them. Southern and Northern supporters, Republicans and Democrats, writers and fighters. Once our country was big enough for everyone. I have a feeling that narrative history will be rewritten. I don’t think they make them like Teddy Roosevelt any more. A rich man who actually did care for the poor. There was a day when such things could be said without a wink and a nod. Before “In God We Trust” was inscribed on paper money, confusing forever deity and dollar. I breathe deeply. History weighs heavily upon me here.

Those of us who study ancient religions can’t help looking backwards. There is a consolation in it. Before progress also becomes a myth, I can stand here and gaze back into days when those who were presidents actually read. Theodore Roosevelt wrote books. He believed that the rich had serious social obligations. He had no words of complaint when his nephew Franklin Delano decided to join the Democratic party to become the president who saw this nation through the Great Depression. Today we stand on the cusp of an even greater depression. Or the Great Oppression. At least the incoming administration won’t need to stay in drafty old hotels. They’ll just built tasteless modern ones and say that they’ve always been there. Post-truth is the only truth now.

“The Gift of the Magi” tells the story of a doomed trade. A couple each sacrifices something they value to give the other a gift that they cannot use due to that very sacrifice. It’s kind of like electing a president out of spite. Like cutting off your hair when your Christmas present will be expensive brushes. Like believing that having money equates to intelligence. I hope there’s still something of Teddy Roosevelt left in this hotel. A sense of greatness that didn’t need a red cap to make itself appear as a lover of people. Roosevelt didn’t flinch from insults. He delivered a campaign speech after having been shot by a would-be assassin, bullet still lodged in his chest. He wasn’t a perfect man, but he believed sincerely in the obligations of the wealthy. I want to inhale that history before all of this becomes just another piece of fiction for an administration that doesn’t believe reading to be fundamental any more.

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